San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital was the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s Hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages. Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves — “anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times” and needed extended medical care — ended up there. Dr. Sweet ended up there herself, as a physician. And though she came for only a two-month stay, she remained for twenty years.
At Laguna Honda, lower-tech but human-paced, Dr. Sweet had the chance to practice a kind of “slow medicine” that has almost vanished. Gradually, the place and its patients transformed the way she understood the body. Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be fixed, her patients evoked an older notion, of the body as a garden to be tended.
God’s Hotel tells their stories, and the story of the hospital, which — as efficiency experts, politicians, and architects descended, determined to turn it into a modern “health care facility” — revealed its truths about the cost and value of caring for body and soul.
In God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine Dr. Sweet lays out her evidence—in stories of her patients and her hospital—for some new ideas about medicine and healthcare in this country. In trying to get control of healthcare costs by emphasizing “efficiency,” we’ve headed down a wrong path. Medicine works best—that is, arrives at the right diagnosis and the right treatment for the least cost—when the doctor has enough time to do a good job, and pays attention not only to the patient but to what’s around the patient. Dr. Sweet calls this approach Slow Medicine, and she believes that, put into wider practice, it would be not only more satisfying for patient and doctor, but also less expensive. The New York Times calls her ideas “hard-core subversion”; Vanity Fair judges the book to be a “radical and compassionate alternative to modern healthcare,” and Health Affairs describes Dr. Sweet as a “visionary.”